The budget deal

Now playing at a state Capitol near you

Greg Lucas’ state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every-other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

The budget is California’s biggest, most boring and bodacious stomp-on-the-terra-firma public-policy shindig of the year.

And the deal is going down at a state house near you.

Gov. Jerry Brown, cagey septua-genarian, proposes spending $146 billion during the fiscal year that begins July 1, on public schools, health care, welfare, state universities, prisons and other services millions of Californians rely on. Or at least expect.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, say “Rock on, Jer Bear. Spend every billion in your pocket, then haul your bony ass over to the ATM and grab more. Never mind, we’ll handle it. On a tight schedule.”

The Legislature’s budget plan says more money flows to the state than Brown predicts. Their work is nearly done, because if legislators haven’t OK’d a budget by their June 15 deadline, their pay is docked.

Residents of the “real world” don’t seem real jacked up about the budget. Most of the angst seems confined to what’s known by its occupants as “The Building.”

Decibels are relatively low because, for the first time in a decade, spending commitments don’t need to be ratcheted down by double-digit billions.

The crafty, grizzled governor says that’s swell, but believes it’s risky to increase spending. California should stand pat. If history is any guide, that’s fiscally sound.

Previously, when there’s been money on state shelves, governors and lawmakers made mischief, chaining the state to new programs whose annual costs keep climbing exponentially—like in-home care for the elderly, which, at $1.8 billion, is the fastest-growing state expense of the past 10 years.

So, Brown downplays the $4.5 billion more in unexpected dough the state received this year. The boon is partially caused by increased taxes Californians approved last November for residents earning $250,000.

Secretly, there really isn’t $4.5 billion in mad money, Brown says. Formulas require most of the moola be sent to public schools, which seems pleasantly karmic, given how they’ve been shorted billions over the past 10 years.

Overall, Oakland’s ancient mariner wants spending to stay right about at the same levels he proposed in January before the $4.5 billion windfall he says never happened.

In sum, Brown’s lowballing.

Bummer for legislative Democrats. Brown’s stance means no money for restoring some of the programs the Legislature digs that were eliminated in previous budget years. Like a measly $131 million to provide dental care for indigent adults.

But—presto chango!—legislative Democrats escape Brown’s box.

The Legislature’s chief budgeteer and channeler of Houdini is the legislative analyst. The analyst solves everything with a rosier revenue outlook than Brown.

Using the analyst’s number gives Democratic lawmakers more nonexistent—but expected—money to spend now on programs like adult dental care that appease the interest groups, who help keep them and their colleagues in office. If Brown vetoes the additional spending, so what? He’s the heavy.

Buying the analyst’s prediction is like Wimpy paying Tuesday for a hamburger today. But, again, what’s the downside? A reserve has been created in the Legislature’s budget using these ephemeral greenbacks. If the currently nonexistent money remains nonexistent, then the reserve built of them simply goes “poof.”

But now a deal is consummated. The Legislature agrees to go with Brown’s lowball and, in return, gets some mad money to spend on stuff they like. Brown gets approval of his new funding formula for schools that earmarks more money for English learners and kids with learning difficulties. He claims his idea is both just and moral, which are words that, when used in politics, deserve extreme skepticism.

While neither is particularly just nor moral, it’s certainly a shocking coincidence that 2013 is the year California brings bring back adult dental care for the indigent and unsnarls the state’s public-school purse strings. All at the same time. But totally unrelated, because vote trading is a felony and stuff.

Sketch? Totally. Better to bogart the biggest, baddest public-policy utterance of the year and mess with 38 million lives in nothing but bad ways? No way. It’s Chinatown, Jake.